Adding Domaine Roger Sabon, the iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape winery, to our growing stable of suppliers was a lucky strike. Getting to know Jean-Jacques Sabon was the real bonanza! writes our wine correspondent, Jim Walker.
We began visiting Provence and the delightful village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on a regular basis over a quarter century ago, having been inspired by both Peter Mayle’s engaging book A Year in Provence and by our cousins who had a pied-à-terre there. Of course while sojourning in that marvellous land it was imperative that we find a proper and reliable purveyor of fine wines and spirits to sustain us during our adventures. This we found in the person of Christian Esparza and his splendid wine emporium Caves et Domaines situated on the north perimeter road of the village. Over the years we did our best to deplete Christian’s supply of delectable potables and in the process became close friends (more of this in a future edition on Gentleman’s Portion).
One dreary spring day a year or so after we had ventured forth into the wondrous world of wine importing, we received a phone call from Christian. He had been speaking with Jean-Jacques Sabon, one of the family of owners of Domaine Roger Sabon in Châteauneuf-du-Pape who mentioned that he was looking for a new wine importer for Ontario. Christian told him about us and he was interested (oh, the beauty of personal connections). Jean-Jacques asked that a convenient time be arranged for him to call us to discuss a possible collaboration. Christian also casually mentioned that Domaine Roger Sabon had a fine reputation and that Jean-Jacques preferred to converse in the language of Molière (that left me out and Hélène in the hot seat for the call).
Of course we needed to do our homework. The Sabon family began growing grapes in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in 1540. Domaine Roger Sabon came into being in 1952 when the family vineyards were split into three distinct entities (the other two being Domaine Chante-Cigale and Clos Mont Olivet). The wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., who by the way awarded their 1988 vintage a perfect 100 rating, the first Châteauneuf du Pape so honoured, had this to say about Domaine Roger Sabon: “This estate has been at the top of its game for many years and any partisan of Rhône Valley wines (especially the southern Rhône) who has not yet tried a wine from Domaine Roger Sabon should make every effort to do so. They have hit home runs both in 2009 and 2010, the finest back-to-back vintages I have ever tasted from this 42-acre estate run by the large Sabon family, in this case the sons of Roger — Jean-Jacques, Gilbert and Denis (Note: at the time of our call, the helm was well on its way to being turned over to the succeeding and equally capable generation, Didier Négron, Jean-Jacques’ son-in- law, along with Delphine and Julien Sabon, Denis’ children). This estate has been making exceptionally high-quality wines for years, but recent vintages seem to have risen to a new level of quality. Moreover, Sabon’s wines have not yet been discovered by the masses, so prices are surprisingly reasonable.”
Jean-Jacques’ call came precisely at the appointed moment. Hélène was more than a little intimidated, both by Jean-Jacques’s renown and her lack of viticultural knowledge and was understandably nervous. The conversation began most formally but over the ensuing half hour there was a noticeable thaw and by the end I could tell that the two had hit it off famously. And, we had a new winery to represent.
Over the years we contrived on many occasions to visit the winery and Jean-Jacques. We would always invite him to join us for lunch and he would always accept (and would always insist on picking up the tab). The Sabons had a dank and dusty private cellar and before each lunch Jean-Jacques would lead me into it and ask if we should bring a bottle or two to help wash down our meal. The bottles were arranged by vintage, starting from our right as we entered the room and descending in year as the racks went around the room. Imagine my delight when he went diagonally across the cellar and selected a 1959 and 1966 for our first lunch!
We would always go to his favourite restaurant, La Mère Germaine located in the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was an institution! Founded in 1922 by Mme. Vion, a chef to the presidents of France, it was where most regional wine wheeling and dealing took place as well as a gastronomic destination for wine and food lovers from all over the world. At the start of one of our visits Jean-Jacques clapped his hands in glee as he discovered that they were featuring his favourite dish that day, pieds et paquets. I should have been forewarned when he went on to mention that his wife refused to prepare it at home. “What is it,” I whispered to Hélène? “Must be something like pig’s knuckles,” she replied.
So we went along with Jean-Jacques’ recommendation. What could go wrong, I mused as I contentedly sipped on a well-aged elixir from the Sabon cellar? Then it appeared! A lamb’s hoof with hair still in evidence and crisscrossed intestines stuffed with goodness knows what aswim in a gloppy brownish-grey sauce all in an earthenware bowl. Yikes! I glanced up at Hélène and detected pure revulsion in her eyes. Jean-Jacques was oblivious to all this as he dove into his bowl with great relish.
As Hélène heroically poked away and engaged Jean-Jacques in rapt conversation, I did my finest impression of Mr. Bean in his classic skit at the restaurant Le Train Bleu, searching high and low for somewhere to stash or at least hide the vile concoction (I figured it probably wouldn’t be a good idea if I headed off to the washroom with bowl in hand). Alas, to no avail. So I tamped it down as best I could and added a concealing layer of bread to the top, desperately hoping that no one would notice. I know that I didn’t fool anyone, but imagine my relief when that offal dish was finally whisked away.
Over the years as we got to know Jean-Jacques we came to appreciate what a kind, down-to-earth and gentle man he was. Always positive and thoughtful, he possessed a delightfully wry sense of self-depreciating humour. He always had something good to say about any person or event. I once asked him what he thought of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and his wine rating system. “There can be no doubt,” he replied, “that Mr. Parker is responsible for raising the quality of the wine produced throughout Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
Jean-Jacques was known far and wide for his remarkable healing powers. We would run into folks throughout Provence who would personally attest to having been miraculously cured of one affliction or another just by availing themselves of his clinic-based services. It seems that Jean-Jacques himself had been very ill before we first met him. Perhaps that helped explain why he reduced his time and responsibilities at the winery in order to spend as much time as he could helping others. But, I suspect he would have done so in any case.
He arrived on a little motorcycle, not quite a scooter, but certainly no Harley-Davidson, the last time we met at La Mère Germaine in 2012. A couple of choice bottles of his Châteauneuf-du-Pape were nestled in the wicker basket attached to the handle bars and the usual broad smile was on his face. That was the last time we saw Jean-Jacques for he passed away a few months later. We had often promised to play round of golf together. Sadly that never happened. However, we were indeed fortunate to have enjoyed the time we did with this very special man.
The 2004 Domaine Roger Sabon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Prestige was the last bottle we shared with Jean-Jacques. Here’s how Robert M. Parker, Jr. described it in his Wine Advocate #163 (Feb. 2006): “The super-rich 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Prestige has a dense ruby/purple colour and a big nose of melted liquorice, Provençal herbs, figs, black currants, and cherries. Full-bodied, layered, powerful and expansive with moderate tannins and tremendous depth and length, this wine is best put away for 2-3 years and drunk over the following 12-15. Rating: (91-94) points.”
I found it to be Burgundy-like with notes of red and black cherries, raspberries and incense followed by a long, super silky finish that let the fruit, mineral and garrigue (the aromatic Provençal underbrush) notes play out beautifully. It was indeed a fitting tribute to Jean-Jacques.
In my next post I am going to tell you all about Huguette and Charles-Walter Pacaud, the charming owners of the Domaine La Croix Chaptal winery in the Languedoc region of southern France. In the meantime, I hope you have had a grand holiday punctuated by many a fine bottle shared with family and friends.